Living together before marriage is generally accepted as a normal practice in the USA and Europe. Pre-marital sex in American and European societies has become the norm. Though adultery is illegal in 23 U.S. states, no one has been punished since 1983 , while some 60% of men and 42% of women reportedly commit acts of adultery. In those states where adultery is still on the statute books, penalties vary from life sentence in Michigan to a $10 fine in Maryland to a Class B misdemeanor in New York to a Class I felony in Wisconsin to a fine of $500 in South Carolina.
Islam advocates celibacy before marriage and defines pre-marital and extra-marital relations as great sins and proposes strong penalties. The Quran says, “Nor come closer to illicit sexual intimacy (zina) for it is a shameful (deed) and immoral, opening the door (to other immorality)." 17:32
Yet many Muslims living in Europe, USA, and elsewhere cannot claim to be strict followers of their faith. A good number of single men and women as well as married couples, mostly men, seem to be involved in pre-marital or extra-marital relations. There is no sociological study to substantiate the statistics, yet there are reports based on independent research by many journalists and social scientists that suggest incidents of pre-marital sex among Muslim men far exceed the incidents of similar behavior among Muslim women. By and large, Muslims avoid discussion on this subject often living under the assumption that their community is free from these acts.
Yet it is an issue that one has to face, especially when it impacts the image of Islam and the health of the community. There are many disgruntled women, mostly non-Muslims, who feel betrayed by their Muslim boyfriends after living together for several years. And there are many Muslim women who out of fear and social pressure are not willing to admit the intimate nature of their relations with their boyfriends. It is an issue that deserves to be addressed openly, fearlessly and seriously.
With sex and the discussion about sex everywhere, the Muslim community cannot claim to save itself from its impact. It cannot simply close its eyes and say that “it’s a non-Muslim problem.” The Muslim community has to deliberate the issue and work to strengthen young men and women to stand their moral ground, no matter how tough the circumstances may be. Sex is a physical activity but it is born in the mind. It is not a physical necessity (prior to developing authentic relations assuming their responsibility and consequences) without which a human cannot survive, like food or water. So it is possible that if the mind is properly trained and the ideas are channeled into positive energy, people can control their sexual urges within a moral frame. But this would happen only when the discussion is open and objective.
It is one thing to say that God frowns upon those who indulge in illicit sexual relations, but it is another to study the causes of this life style and pragmatically take steps to direct the sexual urges within an ethical framework for the good of all.
Not many are willing to admit that pre-marital sex is common among single Muslim male students in various colleges and universities, especially among those enrolled as foreign students. There are also incidents of extra-marital relations among students who live without their spouses. Among male students, this happens in different ways. The boy either enters into a temporary marriage relationship with a non-Muslim girl for a specific period of time or maintains a relationship in secrecy. In some cases, the boy even marries the girl in what he defines “Islamically”, without any legal contract or paper work. In this situation, the couple approaches either an Imam or anyone they trust to conduct the marriage Islamically. The marriage is not recorded under the assumption that God is the greatest witness along with two other male witnesses. Such marriage are also solicited by married men. The women are generally non-Muslims and they are told that the husband will divorce his first wife at a later time when it is appropriate.
Temporary hookups through chat sites and dating agencies are also not uncommon among Muslim single and married men. Usually, Muslim men and women come to these chat sites with non-Muslim names regardless of the region they live in and slowly and gradually they reveal their true identify once the possibility of a physical hookup becomes a reality. Usually, Muslims would avoid entering into these kinds of relations with fellow Muslims of opposite or same gender, yet these unions are not rare.
Single Muslim men often start facing trouble when their partner wants to declare their relationship in the open. Most of the time such single Muslim men, who are not serious do not introduce their girlfriends to their Muslim circles. However, when girlfriends ask for declaring their relationship in the open, they refuse and offer religious explanations and admit that they were wrong in maintaining these relations. This either terminates the relationship or it assumes different dimensions.
Ironically, many non-Muslim women take these relationships seriously and some try to familiarize themselves with Islam or even considering becoming Muslim. Single Muslim men often avoid discussions about marriage under the plea that either they are not ready or their families are not. In this situation, the couple usually breaks up.
So what needs to happen to address the situation? First of all, Muslim social scientists and leaders should acknowledge that the issue is real and take it seriously and conduct objective studies to assess the true dimensions of this issue. Simultaneously, we should also develop a curriculum that addresses the issue of relationships between males and females, sociologically and pragmatically. The basic guidelines on this issue are given in the Quran explicitly, but often we, the believers, have failed to transmit this basic message in a manner that would empower individuals to take control of their lives. This should happen from an early age because in schools and in peer circles, they are exposed to sex-related issues at a very tender age.
While we Muslims generally, leave it to an individual to navigate his or her way through the maze of information on sex, others offer structured courses on the subject to students as young as nine or ten. By the time we intervene on behalf of our religion, the children are already exposed to information far better and tempting than the one offered by us. In fact, intervention at this time becomes counter-productive as it leads to stealth sexuality that no one would want to admit to one’s elders or one self. The situation often becomes explosive when the girl gets pregnant. This either results in the termination of the pregnancy or sending the girl away from her circle. Very rarely does a Muslim girl use DNA to determine paternity to receive child support, as this would violate the honor of the family. Often the girl is punished while the sin of boy is generally ignored. The boy often abandons the girl, assuming that the secret would never come out. But with non-Muslim girls the situation is different. So, it is important that we begin the process of education at an early stage. We have to decide when it would be appropriate to introduce such subjects to students.
Only when one has a strong foundation in a lifestyle guided by the divine teachings, one can hope to reduce such incidents. The solution lies in empowering individuals with knowledge that would inspire them to be responsible and disciplined in every aspect of life. Where self-control would be a way of life and where the relationship would not be used to serve feelings of self-indulgence. It is possible to control sexual urges but it won’t be achieved through condemning sexuality, but giving it a positive spin within a moral framework that is useful for everyone. Humans are their best supervisors and controllers, but we have to be empowered with the knowledge that would strengthen those aspects of our character inwardly.
Dr Aslam Abdullah is director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, Vice president of the Muslim Council of America (MCA) and the President elect of the Nevada Interfaith Council. He has authored several books and published more than 400 papers on issues related with Islam and contemporary issues. He has taught at colleges in India as well as in the US. He is also Editor-in Chief of America’s largest circulating Muslim weekly, The Muslim Observer.